Climate change poses challenges for wine production on the West Coast


TURNER, Oregon – The heat wave that recently hit the Pacific Northwest subjected the region’s vineyards to record temperatures nine months after fields that produce world-class wine were blanketed in smoke from the fires forest.

But when temperatures started to climb to nearly 120 degrees Fahrenheit in late June, the grapes in Oregon and Washington state were still young, as small as BB’s, many still shaded by foliage that didn’t had not yet been trimmed.

The good news for wine growers, winemakers and wine enthusiasts is the historic heat wave that occurred during a narrow window when the fruit suffered little to no damage. Sooner or later in the growing season it could have been disastrous.

The bad news is that extreme weather events and forest fires are likely to become more frequent due to climate change. A less intense heat wave hit parts of the western United States again about a week after extreme temperatures hit the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia on June 25 and persisted for several days, causing what could be hundreds of heat-related deaths.

This cool, rainy part of the country normally experiences many sunny summer days, but wine growers are worried about what to expect amid a historic drought linked to climate change: Extremely high temperatures could still strike and fires could strike. forest should be fierce.

This includes Christine Clair, estate manager for Willamette Valley Vineyards in the town of Turner, just outside the Oregon capital. She watched rare winds last September smother the Willamette Valley, famous for its delicate Pinot Noir, in the smoke of nearby flames.

“Last year was our first experience in the Willamette Valley with forest fires and the impact of their smoke. Although it was considered a unique easterly wind event over 100 years, we believe we are now at risk every year, ”Clair said.

In recent years, wineries around the world have started betting against global warming and its fallout by moving to cooler areas, planting varieties that are more resistant to heat and drought, and shading their grapes with more foliage.

Likewise, following the heatwave in the Northwest, the vineyards plan to protect their crops from more intense sunlight.

At Dusted Valley Vintners in Walla Walla, Wash., Less of the canopy will be cut to keep grapes in shade and prevent sunburn, co-owner Chad Johnson said.

Workers, who are limited to morning work on very hot days, will also leave more grapes on the vine, so the fruit will ripen more slowly, Johnson said.

He has never seen conditions so early in summer as the heatwave, with the thermometer soaring above 100 degrees for several days in the eastern city of Washington, near the Oregon border.

“It’s really unusual and unprecedented in my career as I’ve been making wine here for 20 years,” Johnson said.

June 29 was the hottest day in Walla Walla history, reaching 116 degrees and breaking the previous record by two degrees.

Climate change, Johnson noted, has become a major concern for him and other wine producers around the world.

“If it’s not that horrible early spring frost they’re having in Europe this year, it’s the forest fires in the West, along with the drought. It’s always something, ”Johnson said. “And it gets more and more serious every year. “

The industry, meanwhile, totaled damage from last year’s wildfires that blanketed California, Oregon and Washington state in thick smoke.

So many California growers were concerned about the unpleasant “smoky taste” in the wine produced from their grapes that they tried to have the fruit tested to see if the crops were worth harvesting.

The few testing labs were so overwhelmed that they couldn’t keep up with demand. Some wineries have chosen not to risk turning some of their own grapes into bad wine and damaging their brand and have stopped accepting untested grapes from producers.

“Without a doubt, California’s winegrowers’ financial record has been unprecedented,” John Aguirre, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers, said in an email.

Industry estimates show California growers suffered losses of $ 601 million from unharvested wine grapes, Aguirre said.

“The risk of forest fires seems to be greater today than in the past and it is very, very troubling for many growers,” said Aguirre, noting that they also have to deal with the heat, the heat. drought, frost, excessive rains, pests and diseases.

There is little that wineries can do to prevent forest fires outside their property, but if they are inundated with smoke, they can try to minimize the damage. For example, they can turn some of the grapes most exposed to smoke into rosé instead of red wine. This limits contact with the skin of the grape during winemaking and can reduce the concentration of aromatic smoke compounds.

A report on the California harvest from the San Francisco-based Wine Institute said that despite the challenges, many wineries are excited about the 2020 vintage.

Corey Beck, CEO and head of winemaking at Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Sonoma County, Calif., Said he was optimistic based on small batch fermentation trials.

“It was like, ‘Oh my god, these wines are great,’” Beck told the Wine Institute.

Willamette Valley Vineyards also fermented small samples of the grapes to assess whether the smoke would affect the resulting wine. Its 2020 Whole Cluster Pinot Noir vintage received good marks from Wine Enthusiast magazine.

But winemaking has become so difficult and competitive that when people turn to Johnson for advice on getting into the business, he tries to talk them out of it.

“The first thing I do is tell them it’s probably not a good idea,” he said. “It’s really, really hard, and it’s getting harder and harder.”

Article by Andrew Selsky, Associated Press

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